The Spy Who Loved Me is a bit of an interruption in the “Blofeld trilogy” of novels where Bond chases after Ernst Stavro Blofeld and his organisation SPECTRE. Blofeld never appears in this novel, but reference is made to SPECTRE and that is why Bond eventually comes onstage. He stumbles across the Dreamy Pines Motor Court by accident, and finds there Vivienne Michel being held hostage by two nasty-looking gunmen. A fight ensues, St. Patrick drives the metaphorical snakes out of the motel, and claims his prize.
Perhaps you can tell, but I don’t really like The Spy Who Loved Me. But before I really bury into it, it’s only fair that I allow Ian Fleming himself to defend what he tried to do with this book. The following is shamelessly lifted from Andrew Lycett’s biography of Ian Fleming:
The idea behind The Spy Who Loved Me is commendable. It’s supposed to be an examination of Bond from another angle, showing us that Bond is not perfect and that he can be just as bad as the people he chases. If you’ve been keeping up with this series of reviews, you’ll know that is one of my favourite themes in the Bond books. So why am I so unhappy with this book?
It’s because of one thing: Ian Fleming could not write from a woman’s point of view. Occasionally he came up with a brilliant female character, such as Tiffany Case in Diamonds are Forever. He could even write convincingly of the love that sprang up between two people or the bitterness that could tear such a love down. But to write an entire novel, however brief, from a woman’s point-of-view? This was an interesting experiment, and I give Fleming full credit for trying something new. Unfortunately, it was a dismal failure as an experiment.
Vivienne Michel isn’t a very interesting character, and thanks to the first-person narration, as the readers we are trapped into accompanying her throughout the novel. Consider these numbers: my edition of the book has 156 pages. Part One is 59 pages long. In other words, over 1/3 of the book is concerned with Vivienne’s backstory, without a hint of Bond around the corner, and it isn’t convincingly written. Bond himself doesn’t appear until page 93, nearly 60% of the way through the book.
“What are you getting so upset about?” you might be asking. “Okay, so Fleming couldn’t write well as a woman—is that really such a shock?” You’re right—had it ended there, I wouldn’t have much of a problem with this book, I’d just consider it a bit dull. But you see, Ian Fleming had something of a sado-masochistic streak where sex is concerned, and this is fused into Michel’s character. She’s a submissive woman like Fleming might have fantasized about. And as a result she doesn’t fulfill her supposed function of giving Bond a critical examination. Instead, she gushes over how heroic Bond is, how he is the St. George who slayed the dragon, appearing out of nowhere, a knight in shining armour… and now, naturally, he must collect his prize. So she gives herself to him.
That’s bad enough, but when you have your female narrator say that “all women enjoy semi-rape”… I’m sorry, but that’s just disgusting and reprehensible. It’s a line that should never have seen the light of day. Correct me if I’m wrong, ladies, but I’m under the distinct impression that you don’t enjoy rape, semi or otherwise. I can only imagine what kind of critical thrashing Anthony Boucher would have given this novel. He didn’t like Fleming to begin with, but with such a portrayal of a woman, I can just imagine his outrage.
But is there anything I can say in defense of The Spy Who Loved Me? Sort of. Part One is almost unbearably dull, but once the gangsters appear in Part Two, things begin to pick up. There’s a really tense scene where they attempt to rape Vivienne and she runs out on them. (Oh, but honey, you’re about to tell us you – and, in fact, all women – enjoy that sort of thing when Bond does it! No, I’m not getting over that line any time soon.) Thus begins a search for her in the midst of a downpour in the middle of the night. When Bond finally shows up in Part Three, the battle with the gangsters is genuinely exciting. This is my favourite incarnation of Bond, where he has to use his wits and physical prowess to get past the gangsters (instead of relying on technical gadgetry). Unfortunately, once the dragon is dead, the book snaps right back into boring mode, has a dull shower-sex scene, and then we are treated to the banal homily at the end where Sheriff What’s-His-Name lectures Vivienne and the reader on the moral of the story.
Ian Fleming was positively humiliated by the wave of negative reviews for this book, and so he tried burying it. He refused to allow paperback reprints of this book and (I believe) he stipulated that if a film version were to be made, it could use the book’s title but not the plot. I can understand such a reaction. Although the book has got one or two good moments, they are simply not worth wading through all the crappy parts. This is the closest a James Bond novel has ever gotten to being straight-up unreadable, although it’s not quite at that level. Overall, The Spy Who Loved Me is the only book in the series that I would honestly recommend skipping. I sort-of-wish I had skipped it. I didn’t like this book the first time I read it, but I only considered it pretty dull reading. I’ve gone from indifference to active dislike this time around.